Like Bahia and Pernambuco, this entire stretch of the Northeast coast was hotly contested by colonial powers in the 1500s, with the Portuguese battling the Dutch and French for control over the major colonial outposts of Natal, Fortaleza, and São Luís. The only Brazilian city that was actually founded by the French, São Luís was named in honor of French king Louis XIII. For their part, the Dutch succeeded in taking control of Natal and Fortaleza in the 1630s and São Luís briefly in the 1640s. Ultimately, however, the Portuguese persevered.
Aside from São Luís, which prospered as the result of its important maritime port and vast sugar and cotton plantation, until well into the 19th century, these remote administrative capitals—and the isolated countryside surrounding them—remained sleepy and remote. Main economic activities revolved around fishing and limited agriculture, most notably sugar, cotton, and cashews.
The parched Sertanejo interior of Rio Grande do Norte and Ceará proved propitious for little more than cattle raising. To this day, the region is one of the poorest and most affected by drought in Brazil. Years go by with little or no rainfall.
In recent years, regional industries have made headway in Ceará and Maranhão. However, tourism has been the biggest source of the development boom that has transformed Natal and Fortaleza as sun worshippers from southern Brazil and western Europe flock to the region’s incomparable beaches. While infrastructure and services have improved, the downside of development has been a flood of ugly high-rises in both cities and a problematic increase in child prostitution.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition